Good Shepherd Food Bank, the state’s primary supplier of charity food pantries, has grown tremendously in recent years. And that is a shame.

Designed for emergencies only, the food pantry system is now a regular source of sustenance for tens of thousands of Mainers. It’s like running your house on a generator: costly, inefficient and utterly unnecessary when there is a better way.

That better way is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, which provides direct hunger relief to the people who need it the most, allowing recipients to shop for food the same way everyone else does.

But it has been the policy of the LePage administration to cut as many people as possible from the federally funded food stamps program, under the premise that the benefits keep “able-bodied” Mainers from looking for work.

However, the people dropped from the rolls are not finding work any faster, and many of the Mainers the administration purports to focus on – children, the elderly and the disabled – still struggle to get enough food. As a result, while the hunger that erupted during the Great Recession recedes elsewhere, it has become a way of life in Maine.


The percentage of people who struggle with hunger nationally rose as high as 14.6 percent in 2008, when the recession left so many vulnerable Americans reeling and seeking assistance for the first time.

That number fell to 12.7 percent in 2015, but in Maine, where the economic recovery has lagged, the rate remains stubborn at 15.8 percent, and as high as 17 percent in some counties. Worse, Maine is third in the nation in “very low food security,” the percentage of residents who frequently skip meals because they cannot afford them.

Overall, one in six Mainers, and one in four children, struggle with hunger.

Who are these Mainers? They live next door to you and sit next to your kids in school. They are retirees on a fixed income, people with diagnosed and undiagnosed disabilities, laid-off workers struggling to find their next job and full-time workers making less than a livable wage.

And, according to a new survey done on behalf of Good Shepherd and Preble Street, they rely heavily on food pantries. Of the more than 2,000 Mainers surveyed in all 16 counties, 86 percent use a food pantry at least once a month, including 44 percent who use one at least every two weeks.

That’s despite the fact that more than half also receive SNAP, showing just how inadequate those monthly benefits are – about $1.40 a meal. The vast majority of recipients say SNAP runs out in two weeks or less, and most say even with all the help, they are making choices between food, heat and health care by the end of the month.

And it’s getting worse: 59 percent of the respondents said they use a pantry more than in the past.

That is as clear an indictment of Maine’s anti-hunger efforts as it gets.


So how did the LePage administration respond to this growing hunger crisis? In the last two years, it has implemented for the SNAP program a three-month time limit for childless, able-bodied Mainers ages 18 to 59, as well as an asset test for some recipients, refusing to apply for a federal waiver that would exempt Maine from both.

The idea is that taxpayers should not buy food for Mainers who are healthy enough to work, and that by providing that food for free, SNAP is incentivizing unemployment.

But taking away a person’s food stamps does not make a job appear. It doesn’t fix their car so they can get to an job interview or training session. It simply adds to their already considerable stress and leaves them hungry, making it more difficult to pull themselves out of poverty.

More likely, they will continue to spiral downward, until homelessness or health problems make them more of a burden than $1.40 a meal.

The fact is, most working-age SNAP recipients are off the program in under a year. LePage’s policies just stunt their recovery, making it less likely they’ll get back on their feet. They are not reducing hunger, just shifting it to a much more inefficient and ineffective system.

The asset test, too, puts struggling Mainers in a bind, asking them to use their meager savings before receiving benefits, making it more likely they’ll need more costly help in the future.

And though those policies were aimed at saving resources for the most vulnerable, they are clearly not helping: 87 percent of households using food pantries include a child, senior or person with a disability.

No, hunger in Maine is not caused by laziness or public generosity. It is a byproduct of a stagnant, low-wage economy intersecting with the stresses of poverty. Lack of transportation, the high cost of living and health care, and insufficient retirement funds conspire to put Mainers in so deep a hole they can’t get out. Gov. Paul LePage has responded by digging it deeper.

We don’t expect LePage to change his tune. But if legislators don’t go back to their districts and see hunger, they’re not looking hard enough. And if they don’t deal directly with the realities of hunger, they are letting their constituents down.